June 2011 Articles

What do customer’s need? At a basic level, food, water and shelter; and there are many businesses that focus on providing these three things. At a higher level, customers whose basic needs are fulfilled may desire to travel, acquire gadgets or build their wardrobe. Successful businesses that fulfill a person’s basic needs, or their higher level needs, all share a common tenet: focus on giving customers the best quality product or service while strategically planning ahead for their customer’s future needs.

Whether the market for your product is a niche, geographically isolated group of people or has a national audience, your product must meet customer needs. How you meet those needs depends on your relationship to your customer. If you’re an artist who has been commissioned to create a large piece for a new skyscraper’s lobby, the building owners may physically constrain the dimensions your work based on the size of the lobby, however it is unlikely that they will constrain your creativity. You as the artist have the job to fulfill your patron’s needs by creating for them the perfect piece. You are in control of the final product; although the building owners will likely want to see sketches, concepts or models prior to the installation.

Web developers meet their customer’s needs by asking for the functional requirements of the website and its color palette. Working from those constraints, they develop the best website to meet their customers needs. Often the developers will work closely with end users and within their product team to develop and test prototypes prior to releasing the code and taking the site live. They have met their customer’s needs by actively reviewing iterations of their work with the customer throughout the development.

For companies that produce products, they first must identify a need within a community for the product before bringing that product to market. Should their product not fill the needs of their market, or not reach their market, the product is often unsuccessful and the company moves on. However when a product is successful, the company is able to make a profit and reap the rewards of filling a need within their market community.

The next step for a company that releases a successful product is to continue making customers happy with that product. Whether a company does this by providing a quality product day-after-day without changing their offerings, or innovates and releases an upgraded or new product on a regular basis, they are continuing to strive to meet their customer’s needs in order to expand their business and capture repeat business.

Take for example In-N-Out Burger. Since day one this family owned company has been making hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes. Over their 63 year history, the company has stuck by a simple restaurant philosophy:

Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.

This attention to customers has made In-N-Out one of the most successful hamburger joints on the West coast, with loyal customers who will seek out their simple but delicious burgers in their home towns and on trips out of town. Although the times have changed since that first In-N-Out location in Baldwin Park, CA, the menu and their dedication to providing top quality food and service to their customers has not.

Is adhering to their philosophy the single ingredient In-N-Out needed to be successful for over six decades? Doubtful. The company also had to maintain the business side of the house, continue to train and hire the highest quality employees and keep their stores stocked for the daily flood of hungry diners. However, above all else, their customer focused philosophy paired with tasty food options makes customers happy and want to return. For at the end of the day, a business works because people want to give them money for doing what they do. A company keeps that revenue stream flowing by continuously ensuring customer satisfaction. As any In-N-Out customer or associate will tell you, if there’s something wrong with your order, they are happy to fix it for you.

Making burgers in restaurant locations spread across the West coast leads In-N-Out to approach customer satisfaction in a very one-on-one manner. When a customer has an issue or wants to give their praise, employees are readily accessible; and for those comments you would rather write down, you can drop them in the comment box or email the company on their website. So what guiding principles should Internet-only businesses subscribe to in order to give their customers the same level of satisfaction that In-N-Out gives to their devoted customers?

Like In-N-Out, online businesses must provide their customers with a top quality product and friendly customer service. In a market that has only existed for past two decades where innovation is fast-paced, delivering quality products that keep up with the technology development is tough. Take Amazon.com as an example. The online retailer opened for business in July 1995 and has seen annual revenue rise from $15.7 million in 1996 to $34.2 billion in 2010.

At Amazon, strategic thinking is done looking ahead five to ten years down the road. Despite being a internet retailer, embroiled in the daily battle among technology companies to adopt and sell the next-best-thing, Amazon has carefully chosen its products and services to meet customers needs. When Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, sat down with the Harvard Business Review in 2007, he reflected on how his customer focus has helped him guide his company since its inception.

I think somehow I am congenitally customer focused. And I think that from that comes this passion to figure out customer-focused strategies as opposed to, say, competitor focused strategies. There’s nothing wrong with competitor focus. There are other companies that have delivered exceedingly good business results by pursuing close-follower strategies, setting up really good benchmarking tools. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of passion. It doesn’t happen to be who we are. We don’t ignore our competitors; we try to stay alert to what they are doing, and certainly there are things we benchmark very carefully. But a lot of our energy and drive comes from trying to build these customer-focused strategies.

Bezos justifies his persistent customer focus noting that it’s Amazon’s customers who give the company money, not its competitors. While simple in principle, it is this overarching basic tenet of business that has helped to make Amazon one of the top internet retailers today.

Many new businesses will develop winning products and services in the future, and many others already in the marketplace will continue to do so. Their ability to sustain success will not be based on the number of features they add to their products or their ever expanding number of retail locations, rather their success will be based on their ability to meet customers needs while maintaining quality. Businesses that deliver strong, quality products and services while focusing on their customers will ultimately thrive in the market.